What Makes You You? Individuality in Edith Stein

For a number of years during high school and college, I worked in theater, and as a college student, I wanted to be a director. I spent many hours watching rehearsals and found that one can tell—surprisingly quickly—when an actor has rightly understood her character. There is a kind of “logic” or consistency to the character. One can say, “Ah, that is exactly what Helen would have done here” or “No, no, I don’t believe you. Anne wouldn’t have reacted that way.” Similarly, I have often found myself saying of friends, “That is just the sort of crazy plan Cathy would have come up with” or “No? Are you sure it was her?” These kinds of hypothetical statements and judgments about what someone would or would not do make sense, just as we can have rather long discussions—which cannot be reduced simply to our “opinions”—about fictional characters. Individuality and our individual personalities are not something random. What makes Cathy, for example, unusual need not be a quirky deviation from the common human pattern: rather, it appears to be something quite intelligible and rooted in some kind of structure. Our choices are not completely free in the sense that they are utterly unpredictable and without patterns that can be, once someone knows us, more and less anticipated.

In the following I would like, first, to present Edith Stein’s theory of individual uniqueness, which she developed, in part, out of these types of concerns. Stein was intrigued with the ways in which our personalities are intelligible. Her autobiographical writings are filled with descriptions of people that attempt to capture something essential characterizing each person. For example, she reports that her relatives called her a Streberin, a go-getter, and the description points to traits of energy, drive, and a certain kind of determination to finish various tasks. Her descriptions of Max Scheler invoke the image of an “absent-minded professor”—brilliant (she says that in him she met the “phenomenon of genius”), with new ideas nearly bursting out of him, but unable to remember what his own hat looked like. In contrast, Edmund Husserl was methodical and thorough. Her short little descriptions are filled out perhaps with an incident or two, and through these characterizations we can imagine how Scheler might write an essay in contrast to Husserl, or how Stein herself might respond to some problem.

Thus I would like, first, to present Stein’s theory of individual uniqueness, which arises, in part, from such experiences of the intelligibility of individual personalities. But, second, after presenting Stein’s claims, I would like to raise two questions about a central aspect of her theory. In Stein’s early writings, she accounts for our intelligibility and predictability as individuals by insisting that each of us has a personal core, and in her more metaphysical writings, Stein posits an individual form for each human being. While I find these claims to be beautiful and her concerns regarding individuality to be worthwhile, I am, nonetheless, worried about two possible problems with the claim that each of us has such an individual structure. Thus, after presenting Stein’s position, I would like to begin evaluating it by raising two queries about her account of individuality.

Stein on Individual Uniqueness

Throughout her philosophical writings, Stein insists that each human being has a unique personal core or individual form. In her dissertation, for example, she says:

[W]e find not only that the categorical structure of the soul as soul must be retained, but also within its individual form we strike an unchangeable kernel, the personal structure. I can think of Caesar in a village instead of in Rome and can think of him transferred into the twentieth century. Certainly, his historically settled individuality would then go through some changes, but just as surely he would remain Caesar. The personal structure marks off a range of possibilities of variation within which the person’s real distinctiveness can be developed “ever according to the circumstances.”

She claims that regardless of where Caesar lived, even if time travel were possible, he would retain the same personality structure. While the circumstances in which he lived made an impact upon his “historically settled individuality,” his fundamental possibilities would not have changed, regardless of the circumstances. In the same way, Stein insists that each of us can more or less completely realize ourselves. Perhaps our material or historical circumstances are such that certain talents cannot be developed or certain traits must remain hidden, but there is, nonetheless, something to be realized, some personal structure that exists, regardless of whether it is in fact realized.

In her first two Jahrbuch essays, written just a few years after her dissertation, Stein makes a similar claim, describing a personal core central to each person. This core cannot be developed, nor can it deteriorate; it can only be exposed (or not). The personal core appears to be loosely analogous to a physical object and has parts and characteristics in much the same way that a car has a radiator, tires, and door locks or a squirrel has a tail, fur, intestines, and teeth. Someone might have in her soul the trait of generosity or a talent for sensing ghosts whether she was generous or not, and whether she at any point in her life sensed ghosts. Developing some trait or virtue is, according to Stein’s early texts, more like finding something than creating something new. And the personal core will remain the same wherever it is found, although the historical and material conditions of a life will affect how that structure is realized.

Several years later, after her conversion and entrance into the Catholic Church, Stein made the even stronger claim that we cannot even realize or unfold this core fully without divine assistance. In her comments at the end of an essay on St. Elizabeth of Hungary (“The Spirit of St. Elizabeth as It Informed Her Life”), she says that there is in each of us a form that longs for self-expression. Merely importing an image or model from someone else (perhaps a mentor or revered saint) and attempting to imitate it, however, will be insufficient. While such imitation may be important in many ways (and perhaps even necessary), it runs the risk of deforming our own structure. If, however, we attempt to develop our individual structure on our own, we are likely to fail. We have neither the knowledge nor the power within ourselves to unfold freely and naturally our own form. This form is deeply hidden, and to realize it we need divine help. Thus Stein once again insists that each of us has a unique individual structure that is already present within us, even if it is not yet realized. And she further claims that God alone can help us fully unfold that form.

We should make clear that what is gained in understanding or having insight into someone’s personal core differs from simply understanding the possible motives in a given situation. Stein describes motives as intelligible, but not necessary, connections between acts. For example, I may be motivated to complete a chord in a certain way, or motivated by the logic of an argument to accept a certain conclusion. While such motives are intelligible (and the tones do motivate certain kinds of completion and the argument the acceptance of a specific conclusion), they do not cause these outcomes. The song may be left unfinished, and I may become stubborn, refusing to accept the conclusion of the argument. Motives, in contrast to causes, are intelligible but do not necessitate the next step.

Stein insists that the intelligibility of personalities does not consist simply in understanding human motives. I may have insight into certain kinds of motivational chains, but that does not thereby mean that I have insight into your personality. Rather, understanding the core personality of an individual is necessary in order to have insight into “what is a plausible motive for this individual.” I may, for example, talk with a friend about the man she has decided to marry. She tells me stories about their times together, the projects they do, and interests they share. This information, however, is not sufficient for knowing why she chose to marry this man. Rather, what gives me such insight is an understanding of what she values and why she finds these particular shared interests compelling reasons to marry. All our decisions are motivated, but there can be competing motivations. To understand or have insight into how any particular person will act, one must understand more than simply motives. One must also understand or have some grasp of that person’s core. Thus, in an essay delimiting the elements affecting and conditioning human actions, Stein reiterates the claim that all of us have our own personal core or core personality that colors all that we do and all decisions that we make. (Neither complete nor direct insight into the core of another is possible, but partial insight is, and that insight allows us to grasp another’s individual structure and thus discuss the hypothetical acts of another.)

Finally, in chapter 4 of Finite and Eternal Being, a work completed twenty years after her dissertation, Stein says, “‘Socrates,’ as the name of the final determination of the essence, means something different from the human being Socrates himself, and the being-Socrates of this human being must be something different from his spatio-temporal existence [Dasein].” Here she points to being-Socrates, not being-human, as the essence, and she insists that this individual form differs from Socrates’ real being. As such, the being-Socrates, the individual form of Socrates, is independent of his historical and material conditions. The historical and material conditions may affect the degree to which the form is unfolded, but they do not shape the essential possibilities. Our individual form, therefore, is not the result of our experiences but instead prescribes the possibilities available to experience.

In the same work, Stein clearly distinguishes her position from Thomas Aquinas’s. For Aquinas, if there were an “individual form,” it would be the species-form individuated; it would be an individual instance of the universal (the human form or human nature). In contrast, Stein insists that “[i]t has already become clear that we cannot agree with this conception: we see the essence of Socrates in his being-Socrates (in which the being-human is enclosed), and we observe it as not merely numerically different but, rather, different from the essence of every other human being through a special particularity.” It is clear that Stein intends her position to go beyond Aristotle and Aquinas, both of whom see the species-form (in our case, the human form) as the final determination of form. Whatever the individual form is, it is, according to Stein, distinct from and more fundamental than the species-form.

Stein expresses dissatisfaction with the Aristotelian-Thomistic position, and she insists that the individual uniqueness of each person is not merely a contingency of her history dependent upon the degree to which the human form is realized, as if our essence were “a kind that was individuated into a multitude of the same structure.” Our individual uniqueness is something valuable—not a matter of a greater or lesser realization of what is common (i.e., the human form). Further, if one wants to claim, as Aquinas certainly did, that each human being has an immortal soul, then it is at least intelligible to say that each individual “should reproduce the divine image in a ‘wholly personal way.’” Why would God need to create many that are identical in form? Would it not be better to say that each soul reflects the glory of God in a unique way? Thus Stein insists that, while we all share the common human form, each of us also has his or her own unique individual form.

In positing a formal element to individuality Stein insists that there is something intellectually accessible (although not directly accessible) and predictable about each truly unique person. Thus she insists that all Socrates’ actions come from one root, and she looks at our regular attempts to find the key to someone’s behavior. It is precisely these aspects that make a story or drama, for example, convincing. We can talk intelligibly yet also hypothetically about the kinds of things so-and-so would or would not do. Such hypothetical actions fit a pattern that characterizes the person. If there were no structure characterizing each person, such hypothetical talk would be non-sensical.

Further, Stein seems to think that it is our individual form or this individual structure that we come to appreciate in understanding both ourselves and others in their unique personalities. Thus Stein repeatedly insists on a personal core or individual form that is the final determination of the soul and that, in the schema of Finite and Eternal Being, contains the species-form but is more fundamental than that. Finally, a recognition of the significance of our individuality and individual uniqueness is necessary to appreciate the relation between human beings and the divine.

Before turning to a critique of Stein’s position, I would like to make a brief detour. Stein does not claim that our personal core or individual form makes us unique in the sense of unrepeatable. Forms are, by their nature, repeatable. A form or structure is precisely what can be in more than one instance. Individual uniqueness—if what we mean by that is unrepeatability—must lie in something else. For Stein, that something else is our experience—our choices, habits, situations, and histories. Our individual forms may happen to be unique insofar as my personal structure differs from Caesar’s or my friend Cathy’s, but it need not be unique in the sense of unrepeatable. Unrepeatability may only be due to nonformal elements.

In Finite and Eternal Being, Stein describes human beings as a unity of body, soul, and spirit, and she distinguishes these three elements: the soul makes the material body alive and fashions the matter (this is soul in the Aristotelian tradition). The body is that which is shaped by the soul. And spirit is noncorporeal, rational, and free. (Stein insists that we should not, with this division, understand three regions existing independently of each other.) We cannot be identified simply with our individual form insofar as we are more than our soul and even more than a soul forming a body. We are also spirit. If we understand the soul as that which includes our individual form, then the spirit is our freedom in relation to that. Stein says, “[S]elf-formation is not only the formation of a body but also and even properly formation of one’s own soul. The human being is a spiritual person because he stands freely against not only his body but also his soul, and only so far as he has power over his soul does he also have it over his body.” Our individual form—that is, our soul—dictates neither our actions nor our personalities. We may choose how to act, and, in choosing how to act, we also choose how and to what degree our own individual form is realized.

Thus full individuality must be attributed to more than our personal core or individual form. It also—and even primarily—involves our ability to transcend ourselves. In both her Jahrbuch essays and her later writings, Stein insists that we always retain the power to choose among various options, including options regarding our own self-development. Our individual forms do not dictate our actions. They do, however, prescribe which possibilities are available and thus the options among which we may choose. The individual form will affect all that I do, as I can only do what is possible for me. But I may choose—to a lesser or greater degree—which possibilities to unfold and the degree to which they are unfolded. (Stein certainly seems to think that our individuality will also, at least in certain ways, “stream out” involuntarily.) Thus Stein insists that, although we have an individual form, that alone is not constitutive of our personality. Our choices, habits, beliefs, wishes, and fears influence how and to what degree that unique form is unfolded.

Spirit, understood as the power over our soul, is expressive only through the soul, just as our willful actions have only the body as their physical “tool.” Yet insofar as and to the degree that the spirit is distinct from and controls our soul, we are free. And in that freedom, in that transcendence of our own structure, lies our true individuality.

Two Questions Concerning Individual Forms

Stein’s conception is beautiful and deeply attractive to me, and her focus on individuality is extremely valuable. There is certainly an emphasis (and a right and good one) in our culture, both philosophical and social, on individual uniqueness. There is something convincing about the idea that there is a predictable structure to our personalities, and I have certainly seen willful strivings both to develop and to repress personal traits—in both good and bad ways. These descriptions strike me as right.

Nonetheless, I worry about two possible problems with Stein’s account. First, it is not clear to me that individual form or a personal core is explanatorily necessary, and, second, I fear that such individual structures may undermine our fundamental commonality. These are two rather large objections to raise, and I will only briefly articulate the reasons for my hesitation.

Before turning to these questions, however, I would like to make clear where the possible problems lie. There is an ambiguity in some of Stein’s descriptions of our individual uniqueness. At times, she describes the personal core as something coloring all that we do and functioning more like an adverb than a noun. For example, she says that, although two people do the same thing, it is not the same. The action of each person has a different style or “personal note.” There is, thus, no fundamental difference in possibilities, only one in the way in which the possibilities are actualized. I am not objecting to this understanding of personal core or individual form. On other occasions, however, especially in Finite and Eternal Being, the personal structure sounds more like a noun, an a priori structure prescribing the capacities and predispositions of the person. As such, there are not simply differences in style between two people but also differences in a priori possibilities. This seems to be the most plausible way to read her claim, for example, that “the being-human as such is the essence of all individual human beings, common, always and everywhere remaining the same; beside that, however, each has something that differentiates him through content from others.” Here Stein points to a common human form and to something (the individual form) differentiating each human being through content. Presumably, this difference in content is a priori—that is, prior to any of our experiences or choices—and prescribes the possibilities available to an individual in a way analogous to the human form in Aristotle or Aquinas. Likewise, she says, “[A]n individual human being is not capable of unfolding within his life all possibilities that are grounded in his essence (understood as individual essence). His power is so limited that he must purchase his accomplishments in one area with gaps in another.” Stein makes a point here of saying that the possibilities in question are not the human ones per se but the possibilities of our individual essence. I take it that her distinction here points to a real difference in content—that is, a difference in the possibilities in each essence, among human beings. My worry is that individual forms so understood will lead us to conclusions that Stein herself would not have endorsed. Thus my questions are applicable only to one interpretation of Stein’s claims, and, while this interpretation fits with many, if not most, of her claims, she does state her position slightly differently at times. (It is likely that Stein herself was struggling with these questions and attempting to figure out how to articulate her philosophical intuitions when she ceased writing philosophical works.)

My first question regarding individual forms thus understood is whether they are necessary. If we have freedom as well as conditioning through our matter and our social, cultural, and historical conditions, do we also need individual forms? I worry that individual forms—understood as a priori—may be an overdetermination. What Stein attempts to account for through individual forms can, it appears, be accounted for (for the most part) through other means. We can think of the “class clown,” the funny guy in a classroom or office. For example, my cousin, a man quick with a joke, explains his own personality as, in part, the result of choices made at a young age. He wanted others to laugh with him rather than at him. Thus one of the primary traits of his personality can be accounted for through a series of choices he made as a child. Or I think of my own case. My older sister, who set out to forge a path in the world, as all older siblings must, was a bit nervous, self-conscious, and scared in the undertaking. As I came along two years behind her, I saw her nervousness and insecurities and thought—as many middle children do—how undignified! And I determined to present a face to the world that had a bit more poise, a little less fear. Likewise, when we are getting to know someone—a friend or potential spouse, for example—we often tell stories about our childhood, the things that we did, the events that happened, and the culture of our family. These stories are intended, in part, to explain who we are. Given these kinds of examples, it is not clear to me that our personalities need to be accounted for through an a priori individual form; rather, they may be partially chosen and partially an “accident” of our histories. In suggesting the role of accident, I do not mean to devalue individuality—as Stein is careful to avoid doing—but I do want to place the value in our choices amid the conditions we face, not in a priori possibilities.

In his struggle with God in the garden outside Milan, Augustine describes his weakness as one of habit, a weakness of will but not of nature. He says: “I was held back not by fetters put on me by someone else, but by the iron bondage of my own will.” He had acquiesced in his desire, which “became a habit, and the habit, being constantly yielded to, became a necessity.” With perhaps not such a negative tone, personality could be seen in much the same way. Our personalities are in part characterized by our choices (from among the human possibilities) and, being consistently chosen, become abiding traits of our nature. (Personalities would then also be alterable, to a greater and lesser degree, in a way analogous to habits.) Thus it could be our factual conditions, our matter, experiences, and real choices that determine who we are as individuals, not an essential a priori individual nature.

Likewise, if Stein is attributing traits and personal capacities to the individual form or personal core, it is not clear to me that she needs to do so. Aristotle and Aquinas both insist that all human beings have the same kind of structure, the human structure. It is clear, however, that different human beings differ. Some are musical, whereas others are tone-deaf. One person may be quick with a joke, whereas another lacks wit. Such differences need some kind of explanation. We could, however, claim with Aristotle and Aquinas that the possibilities of each human essence are identical—that is, our structure is the same—but our diverse talents and skills are due to various a posteriori conditions. For example, perhaps one person, because of material conditions (and therefore a posteriori), has a weak connection between her ear and brain. While she can hear voices, music, and most noises, she finds it difficult to catch subtle nuances in tones or other sounds. Thus she claims that she is “unmusical” and turns her attention instead to visual stimuli. The possibilities within her essence are identical with those for any other human being, but due to material circumstances she is inclined toward some avenues of communication and expression rather than others. Thus we could claim that all human possibilities are identical and thereby justify the assumption of sameness, while attributing difference to the way the essence unfolds in real situations—including physical, psychological, and spiritual factors. And if such explanations are plausible, it is not clear to me that an a priori individual form is necessary to account for the differences we experience among diverse human beings.

Given these alternate explanations of our differences and unique personalities, individual forms appear to be unnecessary at a descriptive level. Further, I worry that such individual structures may lead us into a small quagmire. Stein’s position is comparable with John Duns Scotus’s, and there are traditionally two problems raised with Scotus’s attempt to posit an individual form or haecceitas. The first is the formal distinction: that is, his attempt to explain unity in difference. (This is, incidentally, a problem with which I believe Stein can deal adequately.) The second is the tendency to compromise our fundamental human commonality. If we are at base different, as, it seems to me, we must be, given individual forms (even if we all share a human nature that is distinct from our individual nature), how then do we affirm human commonality and, among other things, equality? If our differences turn out to be more fundamental than our similarities—that is, if our individual form is more basic than our human one—then it is not clear that we are genuinely similar in such a way that a democracy, for example, or genuine empathy could be adequately grounded. Thus I fear that Stein’s notion of individual form undercuts other things that she may very much want to affirm.

Stein compares her position on individual forms in human beings with Aquinas’s claim regarding the angels. Aquinas claims both that matter is the principle of individuation in composite physical substances and that angels do not have matter. He accounts for the individuality of angels by claiming that each angel is the sole member of its species: “[S]ince the essence of simple substances is not received in matter, no such multiplication is possible.” Thus there cannot be many members of the same angelic species; rather, for angels, the individual is the species. The multitude of angels is due to the multitude of species of angels, and all are considered angels, of the genus “angel,” insofar as they are incorporeal, finite intelligences. Stein’s claim regarding human beings is similar. Each individual human being is, analogously, her own “species” and the only member of this “species.” No one shares any other person’s individual form. Therefore, while all human beings share in the human form, so too do we differ formally just as angels, according to Aquinas, differ formally.

Stein insists, however, that we are all truly alike; we have a common nature. There are, thus, traits characterizing all human life. She claims, for example, that each human spirit is united to a body and must develop out of a matter-bound soul. All human life is alike in a fundamental sense—it is bound to corporeal matter—and differs in that respect from angelic life. But despite this difference, angels and humans are alike for Stein insofar as each is its own “species”: that is, the most fundamental form in each human being is not repeated in any other. Thus, for all the similarities among human beings, we are—at base—different from one another. Since all angels can truly be classified as “angels” because they have certain characteristics in common (as noncorporeal, finite intelligences), so all human beings can be classified as “human” (as corporeal, matter-bound, finite, intelligent beings). But for neither angels nor human beings is this commonality due to a commonality of the most basic form (although the commonality is, nonetheless, formal according to Stein).

Stein herself suggests this analogy, and I think that it is a fair analogy. It is limited, however, insofar as Stein insists that all human beings do have a common form. Our individual forms do not provide different categories for each of us but, rather, provide specifications of these categories. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the similarity between Stein’s claim regarding human beings and Aquinas’s regarding angels is troubling. Stein claims that each human being is an embodiment of the universal human nature and a member of the whole, humanity, as each angel is an embodiment of the universal angelic nature. But she goes on to qualify this comparison by saying that the relation between the individual and community differs for human beings and for angels. In the angelic world, each individual angel presents a particular step in a hierarchy, and together they build a harmony and great chain. In contrast, for human beings, Stein insists that there is no such hierarchy. The reason for this difference is that angels are independent of each other in a way that human beings are not. She says, “No angel, however, owes its nature to another; none needs the others for the unfolding of its nature—they build a unity as the ‘heavenly court’ that surrounds the throne of the Almighty.” Angels have a hierarchy while humans do not because humans need each other in order to become themselves in a way that angels do not. Human beings experience enrichment and completion through each other; they “owe” their possession of their own nature to other human beings.

Stein’s claim here draws from her dissertation on empathy and her theory of human development. In On the Problem of Empathy, she presents a series of arguments for the thesis that we need other human beings in order to understand ourselves fully as human individuals. Among her arguments is, first, the claim that empathy with another is the condition for constituting the world as real, including myself as a real object in the world. I see the other perceiving, understanding, and evaluating me, and in comprehending the other doing so, I am able to do the same for myself. In doing this to another and recognizing that another may so see me, I begin to evaluate my own actions and to discover my character. Thus we all recognize tendencies in ourselves—persistent traits, talents, and capacities; we begin to discover a character (which we ourselves are) that reveals itself in our actions.

Second, the actions of the other inform me of what I may do and of what I may become. Neither our possibilities nor our potentialities are self-evident. Rather, they are what can be but are not yet. For example, if I see someone else jump a fence or act kindly when taunted, I may then recognize my own potential to jump fences or to act kindly despite unkind circumstances. Thus the other person’s actions are the catalyst for my understanding of my own possibilities. Thus when Stein says that the human being owes his or her nature to another in a way that angels do not, I take her to mean that because our nature is partially hidden and must be revealed gradually in time, often through a difficult process, we cannot without help “claim” our own nature. Because this process is not instantaneous and because our knowledge of ourselves and our potentialities is incomplete, we need other people even to be ourselves.

Stein’s claim in Finite and Eternal Being that we experience enrichment and completion through other human beings, understood in light of the theory of empathy, is the basis for her argument that, although the fundamental uniqueness of angels may open the door for hierarchical relations among the angels, it does not do so in human beings. While angels have different fundamental forms (although, presumably, sharing an angelic form) and stand in hierarchical arrangements, human beings—despite their differences in individual forms—do not. The equality of human beings (in contrast to that of angels) lies in our interdependence.

It is not clear, however, that Stein’s argument can defend real equality. Stein herself argues in her dissertation that enrichment—understood in the sense briefly described above—occurs only in the context of commonality. In On the Problem of Empathy, she says: “Inasmuch as I now interpret it [another living body] as ‘like mine,’ I come to consider myself as an object like it.” It is seeing the other as like me that allows me to so objectify myself and thus be enriched in the meeting of the other. I see the other as an object to be considered, understood, and evaluated, and recognizing that I am like the other I can also consider, understand, and evaluate myself. Thus the basic commonality between us allows the other to enrich and complete me. If, however, I did not consider the other as like me—if I considered her a “saint,” for example, and far beyond my meager spiritual powers—I would also not feel the pull to become like the other and thereby enriched by her. It is precisely in recognizing the similarities, and thus an unrealized but real possibility, that I gain, in the sense Stein claims, understanding of myself and enrichment from my experiences with another. (Saying that we need others like ourselves in order to develop fully need not imply that we need others who act and think as we now act and think, but, rather, others with the same possibilities. In a very real sense, it is the other who does not act as we do or think as we do who is most helpful in revealing to each of us our not-yet-realized potentialities and encouraging us to further development.) Thus it seems that, if the individual form adds traits to the common form, we can experience enrichment only in the traits we have in common.

In Finite and Eternal Being, Stein states that we need other human beings in order to develop our humanity, and the contrast is made between the angel, who does not “owe its nature to another,” and the human being, who does owe its nature to another. Our debt to other human beings creates the equality among all human beings. But it seems to me that we owe our nature to another only insofar as we are similar. Where we are different, the other may offer help for self-understanding and development only in the weak sense of telling us what we are not.

If I am correct that, although we need others in order to develop ourselves, another may do so only insofar as we are similar, then Stein’s argument does little to show that all humans are equal. Thus there is no reason to think that human beings, each with a unique individual form, are not by nature arranged hierarchically as angels are. The need for other human beings, which Stein points to, does not, thereby, show that all humans are equal. I may learn quite a bit about myself through an empathetic relation with a dog. For example, I recognize in my dog the ability to make someone feel loved, a talent for careful watchfulness, and abounding joy. I can then recognize such traits in myself—to greater and lesser degrees—and desire more fully to unfold them. Thus my dog has been helpful in my own self-knowledge and self-development. But we need not thereby conclude that my dog deserves the same treatment I deserve or that ethical injunctions apply equally to me and to my dog.

Thus if the individual form adds traits to the universal form in such a way that there are a priori possibilities present in the individual nature that are not in the universal human nature (or vice versa), then the notion of a personal core or individual form compromises the commonality and equality among all human beings achieved through the notion of a common form. While I do not think that Stein would want either to compromise the commonality or the equality of all human beings or to accept the ethical, political, religious, and social results to which such a compromise would lead, they nonetheless appear to be an implication of her claim.

Thus I think that an a priori principle of individual uniqueness may not be necessary to account for our unique personalities and, further, that such individual structures may lead to a compromise of our fundamental commonality. And thus claims regarding a personal core or an a priori individual form may be deeply problematic. If, however, individual forms are either adverbs of our actions, providing a unique way in which we do each action, or a posteriori—that is, intelligible patterns of actions based upon choices we have repeatedly made or material or historical conditions—they may avoid the problems I have raised.

Stein’s position on individuality is deeply challenging. She clearly recognizes the great value and worth of our individuality and individual uniqueness, and she insists that all philosophical thinking be mindful of this. She is also concerned to preserve the real commonality of all human beings. All her thinking about the person attempts to reconcile and to gain an ever deeper understanding of both these insights. And it is the task of those of us who wish to follow her to evaluate whether, and how, her own account has preserved these insights.

Featured Image: Edith Stein as a student at Breslau (1913-1914), author of photo is unknown, PD. 


Sarah Borden

Sarah Borden is Professor of Philosophy and Department Chair in the Department of Philosophy, Wheaton College, Illinois.

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